Book Reviews

The Wicked Boy: Shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction 2017 by Kate Summerscale

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List Price: £16.99


Hardcover: 400 Pages.

Published: 29 April 2016 by Bloomsbury Publishing

Edition: First Edition

ISBN: 1408851148

EAN: 9781408851142

Early in the morning of Monday 8 July 1895, thirteen-year-old Robert Coombes and his twelve-year-old brother Nattie set out from their small, yellow-brick terraced house in East London to watch a cricket match at Lord's. Their father had gone to sea the previous Friday, the boys told their neighbours, and their mother was visiting her family in Liverpool. Over the next ten days Robert and Nattie spent extravagantly, pawning their parents' valuables to fund trips to the theatre and the seaside. But as the sun beat down on the Coombes house, a strange smell began to emanate from the building.

When the police were finally called to investigate, the discovery they made sent the press into a frenzy of horror and alarm, and Robert and Nattie were swept up in a criminal trial that echoed the outrageous plots of the 'penny dreadful' novels that Robert loved to read.

In The Wicked Boy, Kate Summerscale has uncovered a fascinating true story of murder and morality - it is not just a meticulous examination of a shocking Victorian case, but also a compelling account of its aftermath, and of man's capacity to overcome the past.


4.0 Stars4.0 Stars4.0 Stars4.0 Stars  by Debra Found

Lots of Social History Background

This is the story of a young Victorian teenager, Robert Coombes, who killed his mother.  Robert, and his younger brother Nattie, carry on with life as their mother lies dead upstairs. The book follows the arrest, trial and the future of the two boys.

I found this a fascinating book. There is a vast amount of social history and background making this an excellent read. I had to smile when some people blamed Robert's agression on the adventure "penny dreadfuls" that he read and stated that the violence in them pushed him to copy and commit murder. It was an echo from the past of what the media state nowadays about violent films and computer games.

There is obviously much more behind Robert's murder of his mother than the courts of the day found. It is a great shame that more of this can't be unearthed to fully explain why he did this. However, this information wasn't recorded at the time so the author just couldn't confirm this.

This isn't the solving of an old mystery as was the author's book "The Suspicions of Mr Whitcher". There is no doubt that Robert committed the murder. This is more an explanation of the crime and how Robert went on to live his life afterwards. In fact, the story of Robert alone would only take up a small portion of the book whilst the majority is made up of background social history. I was quite happy with all this extra information but other readers may not feel the same.

This was a good read which I enjoyed. The book flowed easily and I did struggle to put it down.

5.0 Stars5.0 Stars5.0 Stars5.0 Stars5.0 Stars  by Anne

Not really a crime investigation more a work of social history

This book is not really an examination of who might have killed a woman in an urban terrace in London in 1895. Her son admitted to the murder and was convicted of it. This is book is really a social history of crime and justice at the time together with a look at the difficult question of how child murderers should be treated and how the late Victorians dealt with this. It is, however, a fascinating examination of this particular crime although the author has had to make some assumptions about motive which I think she proves well although it can probably never now be verified.

The two children's father had gone to sea when the crime was committed but they then covered up what had happened leaving their mother dead in the bedroom while they went to see a cricket match and even had other people in the house. The author sets the background well and we get a convincing look at the social conditions at the time and how families such as this lived. We then see how the police and justice system worked, or on occasion didn't work, and the efforts at the time to examine why Robert, the wicked boy of the title, might have committed the crime. The media and other seized on the publication of gory stories in cheap booklets, known as penny dreadfuls, as the culprit much in the way that in more modern times video nasties, computer games and the availability of on-line porn have been blamed for similar crimes.

The way that the boys are dealt with is actually very humane and might challenge some preconceptions about this period of history. The book continues to follow their later lives and the results are interesting and maybe bear out well the author suppositions about motive.

I found this compelling reading. It was very easy to follow and the author brought up some fascinating topics for discussion. This is not, as I said, a new investigation into an old murder but is more of a work of social history and I found the material included to be very interesting especially about the justice system at the time and how Robert was treated.

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